Photojournalism – True Colors

From time to time, the global world of photojournalism goes into self-oscillation. This happens when a photojournalist is caught manipulating a photo. News photojournalism is the most sensitive in this regard. We want to trust that what we see in a newspaper, especially when photos are used as accurate and reliable accounts of significant events, are accurate representations of the truth. And when a photojournalist crosses the line, a gigantic wave of photojournalists begins to wonder and discuss where the line is. What is allowed and what is not allowed in photojournalism? It’s a can of worms, but even more important to understand. For photojournalists and their audience.

The basic rules that most photojournalists agree with are that photojournalists cannot add, move or delete anything in the photo. They cannot stage a situation or instruct people to stage an event for the camera (except when doing a portrait). And they are not allowed to use “excessive” photoshopping, tone mapping, color manipulation, etc.

But where exactly the line is between reasonably “improving” the photo for visual appeal, and distorting the photo beyond what is a faithful representation of a situation is not always easy to say. If it were easy to draw the line, it would probably have been done and agreed. The line is especially diffuse when it comes to changing the colors and contrast of a photo.

It would be simple to say that colors simply should not be changed. The photo, when leaving the camera, should be used directly. The camera never lies, right? Well, not exactly! Different cameras and lenses actually “see” colors in slightly different ways. Not to mention the good old movie papers, each with its own characteristics. And when a photo is printed in different magazines or newspapers, they come out a little different. And even when viewed on two different computer screens, the colors will look slightly different.

And it’s not just limited to the camera. Take a picture on a cloudless day, right after sunset, and the real colors will actually be pretty blue. Take a picture of subjects lit by a fire and the colors will be very red. But in these situations, our eyes don’t see them as excessively blue and red. Our brain compensates for the color of the blue sky and the red flame. If such a blue or red photo was printed in a newspaper, the colors look too blue or too red!

So, what’s the right representation of the real colors?

Like I said, the line can be diffuse. An often heard argument is that if black and white photos are accepted in photojournalism, what are they, then why not also accept photos where colors have become stronger rather than weaker?

Technically speaking, it is the same adjustment category: Color Saturation.

But there is more than the technical aspect. And it has to do with whether the photo can be seen as an attempt to falsify the representation of reality. When we see a black-and-white photo, we usually know that “this is a black-and-white photo of something that was in color”. We don’t know what the colors were, the photo doesn’t tell us that. On the other hand, when we see a photo of something with excessive colors, we can think that “wow, this subject must have been very colorful! And that’s where we can be fooled! If the real colors were really very soft, but digitally enhanced in post-processing to look stronger, the viewer could erroneously get the impression that the colors were indeed strong. With black-and-white photos, this is simply not the case and that’s why black-and-white is generally accepted in photojournalism. It declares itself as what it is. A photo with excessive colors doesn’t necessarily do it!

So, where is the line when it comes to excessive colors? We’re getting closer now. Let’s see an example from the real world:

In the global photojournalism organization, Reuters, the guidelines for photojournalists are firmly written, allowing for “basic color correction,” as long as this does not “drastically change the [perceived] conditions of original lighting. They also specify that, in general, “[color] saturation should not be used.

These are very strict rules established to preserve the integrity of the organization that operates in various fields and for various outlets. They have to be strict with such general guidelines. On the other hand, however, photojournalism is a creative profession. It doesn’t mean that photojournalists are “creating” reality, but they are creating representations of it. Therefore, a more lenient line, allowing the photojournalist to use his creative talents a little more, would be to say that it boils down to the intention of the photojournalist: Is the purpose of the photojournalist’s changes “to improve the look” of the photo or “to falsify, exaggerate or overdramatize” the photo?

I think that’s when the line becomes diffuse again. In some cases, it will be very subjective to judge whether the intention of the photojournalist was to embellish or falsify.